No one is sure how it started. Or what started it. One day, there was a report of a man in Russia who was riding in a truck with his friend. He asked the friend to pull over and then attacked him, removing his lips with his fingernails.
A few days later, another report: 5,000 miles east of St. Petersburg. A mother buries her children alive and then kills herself with broken dishes. Then, a video; a man trying to attack the videographer with an axe, and eventually succeeding. No one knows what spurs the attacks or why, only that people catch a glimpse of something mysterious, then violently murder those around them before killing themselves. The only way you can be sure to avoid catching it, whatever it is, is to avoid opening your eyes.
Unfortunately, the name Eyes Wide Shut was taken.
Four years before Bird Box was a Netflix movie starring Sandra Bullock, it was a debut novel from Josh Malerman, also the lead singer of a band called The High Strung. At a tight 270 pages, the book deals primarily in the five-years-later aftermath of this visual plague. By this point, the only survivors are those who have learned to live without looking outside, who block their windows and guard their provisions and forage for water wearing t-shirts tied over their eyes.
Among the survivors are main character Malorie (Bullock) and her children, a boy and a girl who were born into this world and who know only the rules and consequences Malorie has taught them. For years, Malorie has dreamed of one day leaving her house to find safety, but the prospect is understandably daunting. For one, she and the kids would have to wear blindfolds. For miles. Without being able to see whatever, or whomever, might be following them.
As a novel, Bird Box cuts right to the chase. We’re in a crazy post-apocalyptic world where you can’t even gawk at the devastation because no one’s stayed alive this long by looking at anything. Malorie’s a survivor but broken-down, and her kids have the misfortune (or perhaps advantage) of thinking this is all perfectly normal. Malorie’s fed up. She’s ready to blow this popsicle stand, and wow does that sound like a terrible idea.
Bird Box is the kind of book that says “come on….just a few more minutes….like if you stay up until 2am we can probably just knock it out.” And then you do. Because once Malorie is off on her great adventure—oh yes, she goes for it—most of the novel becomes just like those 30 seconds in The Blair Witch Project where the screen goes black and all you hear is heavy breathing and what may or may not be witches doing witch stuff. Except while reading Bird Box you can’t cover your eyes. (Ironic, considering.)
As Malorie prepares to embark on her journey, she begins reminiscing about her one-time companions at the house, fellow survivors who each embody the myriad ways in which humans would try to contend with unknowable disaster. There’s the militaristic survivalist, risk-averse and worried about rations. There’s a thinker, and a team player, and an optimist. And then there’s Tom, the solid and gregarious group leader, whose presence in the house is a salve for every inevitable tension.
Malorie’s memories of the group are some of Bird Box’s best moments, and likely what made the movie, which also stars John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, and Sarah Paulson, seem worth translating from page to screen. The characters fulfill some predictable end-of-days tropes, but as characters, they are also as unknown to each other as they are to the reader. The stilted yet intimate-by-circumstance encounters of survivors are a hallmark of good dystopian fiction, and in these Bird Box does not disappoint. Each flashback is also a welcome reprieve from the nail-baiting oh-shit suspense of Malorie’s escape attempt.
Bird Box the movie has gotten mixed reviews—it’s either the “most terrifying” thing ever, or “a bird-brained mess,” depending on who you ask. But no unpacking of critical reception is required to pick up the 2014 novel. It’s a fast and thrilling read, the kind of book that’s perfect for a flight or a waiting room or when the subway parks itself between stations for 28 minutes because “signal problems.”
Since Bird Box, Malerman has published five more books; his next novel, Inspection, a gender-based dystopia, will be released in April. But despite its age, Bird Box still feels apropos. Because really, wouldn’t humans be wiped out because we couldn’t look away from something? Isn’t that an appropriate karmic comeuppance for us as a species? Humanity’s tagline might as well already be, “The next shiny object could turn out to be a knife.”
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